Chef Niko Romito is something of a legend in Italy. He has been awarded three Michelin stars for his restaurant Reale in Abruzzo, is executive chef at many other restaurants, runs a cooking school, and has been awarded the highest score in the Gambero Rossi Guide for two consecutive years. For a self-taught chef, Niko Romito has amassed an impressive track record. But for me, Reale was a tragic miss.
To obtain three Michelin stars you must have perfection in food, decor, and service. He gets two out of three for me – the food fell completely flat.
It was a two-hour drive to the remote restaurant in Casadonna from our hotel in Sextantio in San Stefano, which interestingly also has a restaurant where Nikki Romito oversees that I also found underwhelming.
The property is stunning as soon as you drive up. A former 16th-century monastery, complete with vineyards, orchards, gardens, and a lovely minimalist hotel. There is also a laboratory where the chef conducts research that gives birth to his new dishes.
The restaurant is exquisite and minimal, with a large picture window overlooking the mountains, stone floors, and simple blue artwork set against white walls. Seating is well-spaced, with only five or six very large tables with perfectly immaculate tablecloths, set with stunning glassware, and lit by modern standing arch lamps. Although the space has very high ceilings, they have installed soundproofing and conversations are very hushed. Of course, a purse stool is provided for each woman.
The service was prompt, courteous, and with an abundance of knowledge of each dish. If you drop a napkin, they are there in a millisecond to replace it. Actually, the service was flawless. Each server wears a navy suit and a mask with their name on it – very clever.
The cuisine was another story. You can order a tasting menu or a la carte which I like. The chef attempts to be very creative and innovative. He focuses on using seasonal ingredients, and aspects like his breads are wonderful, and he has a few bread courses. But, all I remember from every dish of our 15-course lunch at Reale was that EVERYTHING was over salted and many of the dishes were too acidic. It’s as if he was trying too hard to be unique but the flavours of the food did not come through. I was hoping to be taken on a gastronomic journey of the food of the region, but instead, I was utterly disappointed.
The wine cellar was impressive. It was once the stalls of Casadonna, with original 500-year-old water troughs. They have 9,000 bottles from 500 vintners from Italy and throughout Europe. They also have relationships with smaller and lesser-known vintners with a particular focus on Abruzzo. We enjoyed a wonderful silky white wine called Monteverro from Tuscany.
I can say this was an unforgettable experience but unfortunately not for all the right reasons. Yes, the location was breathtaking, with superb attention to detail, attentive and gracious service in a relaxed and serene atmosphere. The chef, when in house, visits every table. But the food quite simply was not good (for me).